With the frequent closings of live rock clubs, area bands have had fewer and fewer opportunities to play and, consequently, less of a chance to develop sizable followings. One band that has overcome this obstacle and developed both a large local audience and an accomplished sound is 9353. The group, which performs at the 9:30 club tonight, has just released its second album, "We Are Absolutely Sure There's No God" (Fountain of Youth 015). Superbly recorded, the record offers a wholly original sound that is as compelling as it is unnerving.
To its credit, 9353 eschews most of the trends in New Wave and progressive rock. For sure, it uses cracking drum beats and chattering synthesizers, as well as a touch of Frank Zappa's zany surrealism and the artsy concept music of Ralph Records acts such as Tuxedomoon. For all the group's stylish mannerisms, however, the eight songs on this album provide a hellish music experience that conjures up a modern urban existence where socialization is a sure path to alienation, if not psychosis.
The key element in these songs is Bruce Merkle's shifting madhouse of voices. In "Spooky Room" the song's nightmarish childhood remembrance is reinforced by Merkle's transformation from a high, lilting voice to a rubbery and deep horror house tone. In "Bypartizoa," the effect is even more dramatic as Merkle's two personas taunt and heckle each other in a manically repetitive fashion.
One of the things that make this record so riveting is the way 9353 uses intense guitar and synthesizer lines to underscore its disconcerting vocals. The gorgeous cascading synthesizer notes that run through a molasses-like ballad, "Viva La Sleaze," create a stunning classical aura that suggests both opulence and decadence. There are a couple of songs here that are too structurally weak to work despite their intensity. Overall, though, this record registers like a well-orchestrated bad dream, unshakable in both its vividness and its sinister implications.
A more conventional musical approach is taken by the Neighbors, a Washington quartet that works in the Beatles tradition of guitar-based melodic rock. The band's debut album, "Famous Potatoes" (Closer 0050), has been released on a French label and picked up for distribution by Virgin. Although the Neighbors, who will open for Phantom, Rocker and Slick tonight at the Bayou, walk a familiar path, the 14 originals on the album are well-crafted pop songs enlivened by tight instrumental play and attractive harmonies. In particular, John Moreman's raspy voice is perfectly suited to the band's romantic material, which at its best evokes the warmth and bittersweet quality of the Beatles of "Rubber Soul."
Two of the most memorable songs here, "Somebody Else's Shoes" and "I Took Her Away From Me," recall the sweet folk-rock charms of groups like the Searchers. The major problem with "Famous Potatoes" is that the conservatism of the Neighbors' lyrical and instrumental approaches tends to grant their material a sameness and familiarity that only a more adventurous musical strategy can remedy.
Baltimore's Richard Taylor and the Ravers favor a classic rock 'n' roll sound that works its way back through the Rolling Stones to Chuck Berry. On a new six-song EP, "Richard Taylor and the Ravers" (LGM 1002), the band seems torn between flat-out roots rock and attempts at a more contemporary approach. Tough, guitar-heavy versions of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" and Buddy Holly's "Rave On" reveal a group thoroughly at home with the hard-rocking ethos of a good bar band.
Three Taylor originals, however, show the band struggling to marry their rock classicism to the more modern song and vocal styles of artists like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Still too closely echoing his influences, Taylor doesn't sound comfortable with his more affected vocal delivery. Yet there is a promise in original songs like "S.O.L." and "Never Was She Lonely" that suggests Taylor could be much more than a second-class George Thorogood.